Theater doesn’t need words. That’s the lesson of Dorian Gray last weekend at the Yale Cabaret. Oscar Wilde’s novel of a young fop who runs afoul of Victorian mores, schooled in the delights of debauchery by Lord Henry, the irrepressible originator of bon mots and apothegms galore, was adapted as a puppet show, staged in a cluttered set of Victoriana and stray junk, with moody lighting and a cloying toy piano score. Odd, to say the least. Once we got beyond the main problems—the difficulty of taking in all the action as no vantage point was ideal, the slowness of the action, the requisite concentration to see puppets “act,” and the need to infer much of what we were meant to be seeing—I think the audience was more or less on board. On the one hand, there was a lot of repetition (time and again Dorian sat before the theater box, watching his favorite actress Sibyl Vane enact the great Shakespearean heroines) and not a lot of forward movement; on the other, there were fascinating hypnotic effects and the sort of etherealized beauty that Wilde himself worshipped.
But it was not a Wilde-heavy evening, as we heard none of the author’s brilliant verbiage, and yet it was extremely Wildean, as we were treated to a sense of theatricality—as pantomime and tableau—that would have doubtlessly appealed to dear Oscar. I particularly liked the mustached puppet-wranglers, all females in Lord Henry drag, and the tantalizing overtones of Sir Edward Gorey, particularly in the eerie death scene. There was also a bit of shadow puppet bawdry depicting the sorts of things Victorian prudes would have conniptions over.
Shadow was provided by Hannah Wisileski, Light by Masha Tsimring—and nothing would’ve worked without them. The puppets, and the conception, and the direction came from Adam Rigg (who also played the artist in the show), and Wasileski, along with Maria Hooper (costumes), Meredith Ries and Kristen Robinson (both set designers) were the puppet-wranglers. In other words, the show was performed by its designers and was primarily interesting as a design showcase. Short on story, long on studied moments of visual magic.
Dorian Gray Adapted from Oscar Wilde Conceived and directed by Adam Rigg
Yale Cabaret, April 7-9, 2011